When I was a kid, my dad had a Ford E-150 cargo van. He still does, though it’s a newer one now. The one from my childhood was red, and I called it Clifford, after the dog from the books.
I logged a lot of miles in that van. Family road trips. Countless little league games. Hardware store runs. Down to the scrap mill to recycle industrial size garbage bags of aluminum cans that I had crushed as part of my chores. And sometimes, a joyride just to enjoy a beautiful day.
I always sat in the back, on the bench seat, even if it was just the two of us. In the temperate Ohio months, we’d crank down the windows and turn up the radio. Then, as now, riding with my dad meant a steady stream of classic rock, brought to my juvenile ears by the likes of 100.7 WMMS The Buzzard or 98.5 WNCX Cleveland’s Classic Rock.
Whenever a song came on that he liked (which, to be clear, was nearly every song), he’d let the first few bars run, turn down the volume a bit, look at me in the rearview, and ask, “Who is this?”
When I first started out, I remember not being very good at the game. My dad would answer his own question fairly quickly, always accompanied by a bit of trivia or a personal anecdote. I started to pay closer attention, and make some associations, but for a while, I stuck to stock answers like “Led Zeppelin” or “Rolling Stones.” Given the odds, they were usually pretty good guesses.
If I answered incorrectly, my dad would respond with a friendly-but-chiding, “Noooooo… it’s so-and-so,” and turn the music back up, all while tapping out the rhythm on the steering wheel.
At a certain point, I got pretty good. I could differentiate and name a lot of the big bands. But even then, I’d always get the guys mixed up. Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen and Joe Cocker and Lou Reed — they were all just random names to me. Nothing distinctive or memorable (or colorful) like Pink Floyd or Black Sabbath or Deep Purple. (I was, like, nine years old. Give me a break, ok?)
The one name I almost always remembered, though, was Tom Petty.
Looking back on it now, I really don’t know why he stuck with me. If I had to guess, it would probably be because his songs were so upbeat, the lyrics so simple, that I felt like I could be a part of them. That they were meant for me. I still feel that way today.
He was a master of tone — and of economy. He packed so much meaning and background and gravitas into a few simple words. His songs are so incredibly specific, but also so unbelievably universal. He was a legend, and his songs came to define a midwestern life. My midwestern childhood.
When I’d get the Tom Petty portion of the quiz correct, my dad would dangle an extra credit question with a simple, “and…?” By that point, the music would have been turned back up, the wind whipping through the open windows, my dad chuckling a bit, waiting to let loose his full approval and praise. To be heard above it all, I’d yell in boisterous response, “THE HEARTBREAKERS!”